Duncan Sheik Talks About His New Musical Whisper House and Revisiting Spring Awakening
Whisper House is currently running in New York at 59E59.
One of the most extraordinary singer-songwriters in America, Duncan Sheik has made his mark on Broadway with such shows as the Tony Award-winning Spring Awakening and American Psycho, as well as numerous solo recordings. His newest theatrical outing, Whisper House, an intimate musical starring Oscar nominee Samantha Mathis, is now playing a limited run at 59E59's Theater A.
TheaterMania recently spoke to Sheik about the long-aborning show, his upcoming gigs at City Winery, in which he and guitarist will play Nick Drake's seminal 1972 album Pink Moon, and his thoughts on last November's reunion concert of Spring Awakening, featuring Jonathan Groff, Lea Michele, and the original Broadway cast.
Whisper House has been in various stages of development for over a decade. Can you talk about this timeline?
Duncan Sheik: So back in 2007, this actor named Keith Powell wanted to direct and create a show, and it was his idea to get Kyle and I together, along with this idea of doing a musical ghost story. So, I went to see Kyle's show, A Very Merry Unauthorized Children's Scientology Pageant, and I thought he was super-cool and we decided to go ahead. I wrote the music in 2008-2009, with Kyle and I both working on the lyrics, and then I decided to release it as my newest Duncan Sheik record, because one hadn't come out for a while. From there, I think the Old Globe in San Diego got excited about the project and produced it in 2010. But ultimately, that was just the first try, and then there was another production London in 2017. But now, with Steve Cosson and the Civilians at the helm, and with this amazing cast, I feel we finally got something great and true to the spirit of what we wrote. It's a very elegant production, which I wanted. When I finally showed up to a rehearsal, I couldn't believe how beautiful the costumes, lighting, sets, and choreography were.
The music is beautiful, but the songs don't all sound like they were written for the same show. Was that on purpose?
Duncan: Well, there's two things. There's been a major evolution in the process – originally, only the two ghosts in the show were going to sing and the actors would just act. It was partially a mercenary thing, since we figured we could get amazing actors who don't need to sing, and vice versa. But the actors singing slowly crept into the text; in fact, the song for Yasuhiro (played by James Yaegashi) was just created for this production. In addition, there's sort of three layers to the music, in terms of genre, time frame, and aesthetic. There's the 1920s, which is when the ghosts are alive, then World War II when the show is set, and then, there's just the contemporary musical where I live. It's not interesting to me to be completely authentic to any one time period.
"The Ballad of Solomon Snell" is about someone who gets accidentally buried alive. How did that song come about?
Duncan: It was one of the first songs we're wrote. Kyle said at the beginning of the process that he wanted us to do a story song, maybe just as a metaphor. Anyway, we were on Kiawah Island in South Carolina in 2008, and one night, just for kicks, we went on this tour of haunted places in Charleston. At the end, they took us to this graveyard and told us about the history of people who were buried during periods of malaria. Apparently, they had to bury them as soon as they could, which was sometimes too quickly, and then they'd have to exhume the coffin because the person hadn't actually been dead. So, they instituted the idea of attaching a string and bell to the corpse's finger just in case the person woke up before they were buried. I don't know if it ever worked, but we decided it a was great idea for a song.
On January 28, you and your guitarist Gerry Leonard are going to perform at City Winery New York, where you'll be doing the entire 1970s album "Pink Moon" by Nick Drake. Are you excited about this gig?
Duncan: Actually, Gerry and I did this show a couple of times at Joe's Pub at BAM beginning of 2000s. What I can say about Nick is that when I first heard his song "River Man," it really inspired me, and I feel like I owe him a huge debt of gratitude. So, when someone suggested to Gerry that we do this again, I said OK, and then City Winery booked us. This stint (which begins at City Winery in Boston on the 25th) will be the first time I am playing live since 2017. I love writing and recording songs, but I don't love performing as much; it's not the most natural part of the process for me. But I've gotten more comfortable with it over the last 25 years. Let's just say I've come a long way from when I opened for Jewel on my first real tour.
What was it like experiencing the "Spring Awakening" reunion concert in November?
Duncan: It was an amazing experience, especially because it ended up being unexpectedly friction free. There is so much history among us, I thought there might be some angst. It was really beautiful, though, and that cast nailed the show like they never left. With Spring Awakening, some days I feel like I can't ever watch it again. Then, someone does something amazing with it, like Rupert Goold recently did in London, and I am thrilled about it again. I'm not yet at the point when the show feels like the albatross around my neck.
Do you know if you're going to be featured in the upcoming HBO documentary about the reunion?
Duncan: Well, there were many interviews I did for it, including ones outside of rehearsals and at offsite hangouts. But who knows what's going to end up on it? If my talking head shows up, great. If not, that's cool. Either way, I am looking forward to seeing it.